4 Tips to Help You Plan Project-Based Lessons this School Year

By Kelsey Bednar


One of the many initiatives that districts across the U.S. are working toward is the successful implementation of project-based learning (PBL). Whether you have done PBL in the past and are looking to make some improvement, or you are looking to incorporate this strategy for the first time, here are 4 elements you should consider when planning for PBL in your curriculum this year:


  1. Content Selection
  2. Student Mindset
  3. Inquiry
  4. Classroom Organization


In this part of the 2 part series, we will look at the first two elements:


  1. Content Selection

This is the most important consideration in the planning process. The challenge is to create and/or find projects or performance tasks that are authentic, connected to the real-world, interesting to your students and most importantly, tied to your curriculum. If you are interested in designing your own PBLs or performance tasks, there are many resources that can help you in this undertaking. Jay McTighe’s paper on Designing Authentic and Engaging Performance Tasks is one I would recommend that helps explain what a well-designed performance task looks like and provides a template for designing your own. Also, be sure to look around your community for inspiration on meaningful projects to engage your students that require the application of content knowledge and skills.


While designing your own tasks can be an exciting challenge, there can be pitfalls. One thing to watch out for is that sometimes, what seems like a very cool project or performance does not actually require students to deepen their learning related to academic content and skills. To help avoid this issue (and save tons of time!), consider using pre-made resources. There are multiple organizations which have created authentic PBLs/performance tasks that are tightly aligned to standards and provide a variety of support material as well. Two notable examples are the Buck Institute for Education’s Project Search where you can search for PBL projects by source, content area, and grade band.  Defined STEM is another great PBL resource with an online library of over 300 authentic performance and literacy tasks ranging across grades PK – 12.


  1. Student Mindset

A roadblock that often appears when students experience PBL for the first time is the “Give us the right answer.” mentality. Your students may not have had opportunities to be creative and innovative without worrying about grades.  Or, they may not have been previously able to cultivate grit or perseverance in an academic setting due to a variety of factors, like time.


Here are tips for how you can ease students into PBL or performance task scenarios over time:

  • Keep the first performance task simple
  • Only ask students to create one product/performance and select a task that requires application of content knowledge and skills you know they have already mastered
  • Work together as a whole group on the first task of the year. From there, you can gradually release the responsibility and ownership of the learning to small groups by their 3rd or 4th experiences. This gives students time to observe and learn the processes and mindsets that will eventually allow them to tackle “messy” real-world problems independently


By carefully selecting projects/performance tasks and planning for the reality of what your students’ mindsets may be, you will have already addressed half of the planning elements necessary to implement PBL. Check back on the blog next week to find out more about how thinking about inquiry and classroom organization can enhance the success of your PBL implementation this year.

©2018 Defined Learning

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